Paul Caplan, a celebrated physician who understood, scientifically, that the practice of medicine was predicated on interpersonal relationships, died on March 7. Caplan was 107 and the oldest living graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
When Caplan was honored by that institution at its 2017 Graduation Ceremony and Medical School Diploma Day, the centenarian offered advice based on nearly 70 years of practicing medicine: “Remember the art of listening,” he told the school’s Medical Alumni Association. “Take time to hear about the whole life of the patient, not just the disease. If you treat your practice as an avocation, not just a vocation, it will never be work.”
For Caplan, an assiduous reader who continued to frequent the university’s medical library in search of new findings even after his retirement at 95, personal interactions were just as vital to his learning as books were.
Born on Nov. 21, 1912, to Dora Freedman and Philip Caplan in California, Pennsylvania, Caplan decided to become a doctor at the age of 10 after his mother grew ill.
A general practitioner had arrived at her bedside for treatment, and “he was so gentle and so caring that I said to myself, even then, ‘Someday I’d like to be like that man,’” Caplan told the Chronicle in a 2019 interview.
Ever distinguished and thoughtful, Caplan was receptive to others, explained Marisa Eckels, a registered nurse who worked with Caplan for more than two decades.
“He just had such a special way about listening to everybody, but his patients, in particular. He just took that time to get to know them,” she said. “He used to tell me that before you ever laid hands on anybody to do an examination, if you just talk to them you probably could know more about them than the exam would ever teach you.”
Dr. Terence Starz, a partner of Caplan’s and a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, agreed.
“His ability to establish a rapport with the patient was exceptional,” said Starz. “And that comes not only from his medical knowledge about the physical aspects of disease, but he was also somebody who understood all of the emotional aspects.”
Fascinated by the mind-body connection, Caplan kept a photograph of Sigmund Freud in his office and attended weekly grand rounds at Western Psychiatric Hospital for years.
“I often called him the Sherlock Holmes of the body,” said his daughter Roberta Caplan.
If people’s ailments were mysteries to be solved, Caplan was perfectly suited to do so. Dapperly dressed in a suit jacket, shirt and tie, Caplan was inquisitive without being patronizing, and his ability to unravel medical conundrums led to scores of followers. His daughter recalled one incident as a prime example.
Years ago, a patient presented with severe chest pains and an inability to sleep. A battery of tests revealed nothing peculiar, so Caplan sat down with the man and his wife. The three spoke about earlier events and Caplan eventually asked about wartime experiences. As the patient related, during World War II, he had been taken captive by the Germans and chained to a tree. Caplan and the couple soon recognized that each night the patient unknowingly relived this former imprisonment. Upon that revelation, Caplan, the man and his wife all hugged, “and they laughed and cried, and Dad came home saying, ‘This was probably one of the best days in my medical career.’”
As evidenced by mementos from his 17 years as the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s international tour physician, and the multiple awards in Caplan’s Oakland residence, his professional days were marked by many highlights and accolades, including being named Master of the American College of Rheumatology, an honor signifying outstanding contributions to the field through scholarly achievement and/or service to patients, students and the profession.
But there were other elements of his life that were less public.
In World War II, Caplan was a practicing physician with the 83rd Infantry Division. Armed with medical insight but no gun, Caplan arrived with the group on Omaha Beach shortly after D-Day.
The experience was “terrible,” he told the Chronicle. “I was making a decision on who should be sent back with the next ambulance immediately and who can wait.”
Throughout his life, Caplan spoke little about that period, said his daughter: “When I was in sixth grade, I was doing a report on World War II, and all he could say to me was, ‘War is a terrible waste of lives.’ That’s all he could say … It really wasn’t until I saw the movie ‘Saving Private Ryan’ that I was able to appreciate what he experienced.”
At 106, Caplan said his thoughts were focused on living in the present and things to come rather than past tragedies.
“I think I have more important things to think about such as, ‘What should we do tomorrow? What’s my next event?’” he said.
He also treasured fond memories, particularly of his wife, Gertrude Forman, whom he married in 1942.
“She was beautiful, had a bright personality and was generous,” Caplan said.
It was through her involvement in the Jewish community, including with the Ladies Hospital Aid Society, the then-named United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh’s chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women, that Caplan “grew through his Judaism,” said Roberta Caplan.
The couple philanthropically supported numerous causes both within and outside of the Jewish community.
Even so, it was the care evident in his “tender” words that serve as Caplan’s legacy, explained Rabbi Aaron Bisno, of Rodef Shalom Congregation: “They conveyed his confidence — in the information and in you — and you could trust all he told you. You knew in his presence, within his embrace, you were truly cared for.”
Caplan is survived by daughters Donna (Stanley) Hersh and Roberta Caplan; grandchildren Craig (Marcy), Brian (April), Eric (Danna) Hersh and Arielle Baumgarten; and great-grandchildren Jenna, Jordan, Avery and Hadley Hersh. PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.